One of the world’s most mysterious places, the Ten Thousand Islands is where the Florida peninsula breaks apart into thousands and thousands of tiny pieces – clusters of mangroves forming islands in a shallow estuary constantly fed by a flow of fresh rainfall in a neverending flow into Florida Bay. For generations, it has been only accessible by water – by airboat in the shallows, by canoe and kayak and jonboat, and by larger craft through established channels and as the bay deepens.
To open this unusual jigsaw puzzle of land and water up to exploration by land, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge used a resource that added no additional impact to this sensitive landscape – an oil well road built for, yes, oil exploration – to create an out-and-back hike into the mangrove mazes. A bonus for birders: a newly-opened observation tower provides a perch for photography and viewing.
Location: Everglades City
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 25.974144, -81.554085
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: low to moderate
Bicycles are permitted on the trail, which is in the open – zero shade the entire route unless you duck under the tower. This trailhead is also the launch point for several kayak trails through the refuge, each route specifically marked. Kayakers, be sure to have a map before you head out into the wilds. If you bring your dog, be cautious of alligators sunning along the trail.
The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is open dawn to dusk daily
From I-75 in Naples, take the last exit eastbound (Collier Blvd) before the toll road (Alligator Alley). Head south on Collier Blvd to its junction with US 41. Turn left. Set your trip odometer – the paved parking area along the Tamiami Trail is easy to miss if you don’t realize it’s coming up quick. It’s 11 miles east along US 41, passing the turnoffs for Goodland and Collier-Seminole State Park, before you reach the parking area around MM 31.
Oil wells in the Everglades? Indeed. The Collier family still owns mineral rights under most of the natural lands that sweep across the end of Florida, and yes, they still pump heavy crude oil from two miles belowground in an area they call the Sunniland Oil Trend between Fort Myers and Miami. For fascinating details about Florida’s little-known oil production, visit the Collier Resources website. Abandoned oil exploration pads dot the landscape of the Big Cypress Swamp – more than a hundred well permit applications have been issued since the 1960s. Like the Fire Prairie Trail in Big Cypress Preserve, this road and pad are now put to recreational use.
Start your walk by heading over to the trailhead kiosk, which offers a good overview of the trail. Hopefully the mileage has been corrected (I did get in touch with them about it) from 1.1 miles to the actual 2.4 miles to the oil pad. Since it’s a round-trip, you can walk as far as you feel comfortable. Head past the hand-launch kayak ramp and along the boardwalk, which immediately turns right onto a paved path. It takes a moment for the trail to curve away from the road, so you’re not within obvious view of drivers on the highway. The scenery quickly opens up. There is marsh all around you, punctuated by tree islands with cabbage palms where wood storks perch. Saltbush fluffs into white blooms in fall, attracting monarch and queen butterflies. Be cautious of the edges, as the water laps close to the trail onto a strip of grasses and wildflowers where snakes or alligators may be sunning.
Periphyton – that goopy mass of algae, plankton, bacteria, and other biomass that makes up most of the Everglades – floats on the surface of the water on the west side of trail, while the eastern side is riffled by breezes and clear. The skunky aroma of Spanish stopper wafts through a small slice of tropical forest that the trail traverses, with gumbo-limbo trees. Look carefully, and you may see liguus tree snails crawling up its bark. Turning the corner, the pavement ends (as of my visit in October 2009, it may have been extended) but the trail continues past the new observation tower. Clamber up for a sweeping view of the puzzle of mangroves and a stiff breeze off Florida Bay.
Passing Kayak Trails #2 and #3, the trail continues as a rough limestone road beyond an almost-perfectly eye-shaped pond (perhaps a ‘gator hole in the larger swamp?). The right side is resplendent in marsh grasses, while the left side is mangrove islands where ibises cruise just above tree level, seeking the next mud flat. Tropical vegetation crowds onto the dike, as do yellowflies. Wax myrtle and saltbush give way to mangroves lining the sides of the trail, which is now very obviously an old limerock road, shadeless, but studded with fossils, especially of scallop shells. A patch of giant leather fern waves in the breeze as a kingfisher sprints past.
Coming up to a nice clear view of the mangrove marsh, take a quiet moment to watch the shallows beneath the tangle of roots for the movement of fish – the estuary is the nursery of Florida Bay. As the trail curves past a lone gumbo-limbo, you catch another glimpse of the denser marsh on the right, where you can see alligator trails leading in dozens of directions. A little blue heron kicks up a fuss. Wildflowers add dashes of color along the footpath. Another view opens up at 0.6 miles across the reedy marsh, and on the left again, more mangroves. This balance of differing wetlands continues for much of the hike.
You cross a culvert where water flows swiftly from one side to the other, a place where alligators tend to hang out for easy prey. The water opens up on the right, less matted with periphyton, transitioning towards becoming a part of the mangrove maze. An ibis sails past overhead, and a great egret perches high up in a mangrove, preening its feathers until one drops out.
The trail curves again, and an opening on the left looks out over young mangroves, some starting to build up their own tiny islands. As the trail makes a curve at a watery bend, there are clumps of giant leather fern looking very primordial along the edges. You are now facing to the west – obvious when it’s close to sunset. A group of ibises land in a large clearing up ahead, which marks the location of the oil exploration pad. The mangroves draw close to the sides of the trail berm. The pad is being reclaimed by vegetation, but there is an instrumentation station here – not a wow scenic ending to the trail, but at least you know where you are. The pad is bounded by canals on every side.
Since this is an out-and-back hike – and the canals leave you no choice – turn around and head back the way you came, keeping alert for wildlife in the mangroves – and in the water, and on the berms, and crossing the trail – along the way.